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Myanmar transition still shaky: minister

Publication Date : 19-11-2013


Myanmar's transition is still at a "shaky" stage and many issues remain. But reform efforts, including the halting of land-grabbing by business interests and ensuring that hundreds of thousands have titles to their land, are slowly winning broad public support, said Minister Soe Thane, one of President Thein Sein's key reformers.

Myanmar has been rocked by sporadic violence since democratic and market reforms began just over two years ago.

While much of the violence has been sectarian, with anti-Muslim attacks stoked by right-wing Buddhists, a string of small bombs set off across the country last month was blamed on regional ethnic Karen business interests worried about losing control of natural resources to foreign investors.

One person died in those blasts and several, including an American tourist, were injured.

"The transition is still shaky," said Soe Thane, a minister in the president's office. "We have to share with the people why democracy is important - why reforms are important for 60 million people, not just a few.

"If we can broaden support for reforms across the civil society base, the transition will be less shaky. People trust civil society."

Soe Thane, 65, a pugnacious but jovial former navy admiral who says he has no political ambitions and just wants to be "an ordinary person", has toured the country extensively, holding townhall-style meetings with local residents and officials where he serves in effect as the president's salesman.

"The message is 'people-centred development'," he told The Straits Times. "Next year, we will visit 330 of the country's most populous townships, to explain to the people the importance of democracy and reforms."

Further, land titles will be given to those who have occupied land for generations but have no titles, he said. The move will prevent land-grabbing by powerful business interests. And by the beginning of 2015, land titles will be issued to landless people.

"If we don't do this, it would only be the President reforming - for the rest of the people, life would stay the same," he said.

On another front, Soe Thane chairs a committee that meets twice a week to review cases of political prisoners. He said the administration fully intends to keep a pledge made by the president in Britain in July, to release all political prisoners by December 31.

His comments to The Straits Times came in an interview on Friday, just hours after 69 political prisoners were released, including two grandsons of the late military dictator general Ne Win.

The releases came amid a flurry of high-level visits to Myanmar last week, by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led a 100-strong business delegation, as well as former United States president Bill Clinton and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Soe Thane said cases of the 100 political prisoners still in jail will be reviewed by year-end.

How a political prisoner is defined is a contentious issue - on the face of it, many could have been jailed on criminal convictions. Soe Thane said his committee will soon announce its assessment of how many political prisoners are left in Myanmar's jails, and invite individuals, families and civil society groups to present cases.

"Then we will discuss who is who. My target is December 31 - I will try to keep the promise," he said on the sidelines as the Myanmar-European Union Task Force was launched in Nay Pyi Daw, to support Myanmar's development agenda and seek opportunities for European business.

He also said the government is moving to cut back on the budget for the army and to allocate more money to the social sector.

On November 7, the United Nations Children's Fund, in its recommendations to the government, said spending on education and health, at 2.3 per cent of the gross domestic product, was "strikingly low" by world standards. The military, in contrast, got 29 per cent of the national budget.

Soe Thane said the budget has just been revised. "Education and health are now getting around 7 per cent and the military 13 per cent," he said. "You can't make abrupt changes - you have to gradually narrow the gap. In the next budget, it will be narrower."


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